While global warming is now garnering citizens’ attention around the world, the Canadian government’s abandonment of climate policy has awakened the public to the need for action. In October, 2006, Stephen Harper attempted to hoodwink us with a PR strategy taken straight from George Bush: Promise “clean air” and phony targets for emissions that mirror business-as-usual, while raising doubt about the science of global warming and the economic consequences of taking action.
Canadians saw through the Harper government’s ruse. So much so that, with an election pending, Harper has desperately attempted to reverse gears. He fired the hapless Rona Ambrose and replaced her with bully-boy John Baird. And not surprisingly, the best this chastised bunch could come up with is a selection of the pitifully inadequate climate-change programs earlier enunciated by St phane Dion when he held the environment portfolio under the former Liberal government.
The Greatest Threat to Life on Earth
Climate change is almost certainly the greatest threat to life on earth. According to the Stern Report (Nicholas Stern is the former chief economist of the World Bank), by the end of the twenty-first century, global warming will cause a massive drop in the annual global gross domestic product of up to twenty per cent. This would produce a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression. And, unlike that downturn, this one would be permanent, not cyclical.
Long before then, however, a combination of flood, drought and famine will have destroyed many countries in the poorer parts of the earth. Even now, with average temperatures only 0.7º Celsius higher than norms in the pre-industrial era, just about every country in the world has experienced weather-related crises of one kind or another. In 2006 alone: record heat waves in the U.S., Brazil and Europe; a drought in Africa, followed by the worst flooding in recent history; heavy rainfall in the Sahara Desert, causing the displacement of 600,000 people; 200,000 forced to evacuate in New England and the northeast U.S.; record rainfall in Vancouver; 1,000 people dead in China from the worst storms in a decade; over 500 lives lost in the Philippines, with many more still missing in a typhoon that affected a million-and-a-half people.
Arctic ice is declining by 8.6 per cent per year. The Arctic Ocean will be open water by 2040, if not earlier; polar bears will drown or starve long before the last ice melts away; seals will also suffer. Permafrost thaw is reported in northern Canada, Siberia, most Arctic lands, the Alps and Tibet. This has the potential to release billions of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is about twenty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As average global temperatures approach 5 Celsius above historical levels which scientists say will happen if we continue with business-as-usual it will mean the end of the world’s great cities, causing human migration on a scale never before experienced.
The scientific consensus is that 2 Celsius above pre-industrial global temperature levels is the tipping point. Concentrations of global-warming pollution in the atmosphere have to remain similar to today’s levels, or only slightly higher. If global emissions peak within a decade and quickly decline, we have a chance of avoiding 2 Celsius. However, catastrophic levels of warming cannot be avoided once average temperature trends start to go beyond this point. Indeed, some fear we may have already passed this level.
If it is to be successful, any workable pollution reduction must consider issues of global equity. Pollution reductions cannot be achieved by keeping the population of the Global South in poverty. The North has both a historic responsibility as well as the capacity to reduce emissions. In addition, it is unjust that the most severe impacts will be felt by regions that have not contributed to the problem through the burning of fossil fuels.
Needed: Radical Carbon Reductions
Simple calculations show how radical a transformation will be necessary to achieve an equitable reduction path. Let us assume that the biosphere is currently able to absorb about four billion tonnes of carbon annually. Then, if the ability to emit carbon is divided equally amongst the world’s 6.5 billion inhabitants, each person could emit 0.6 tonnes of carbon per year. Currently, the Canadian average is 24 tonnes per person, if we consider all emissions. What this means is that a 98-per-cent reduction from current levels is in order for Canada.
As the Guardian editorialized on August 11, “If we don’t take action soon, we could unleash runaway global warming that will be beyond our control and it will lead to social, economic and environmental devastation worldwide. There’s still time to take action, but not much.”
Economic Planning, Not Market Incentives
Massive changes in the structure of the economy and in the personal consumption patterns of all of us are essential if we are to achieve the necessary reductions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Can this be done by soliciting changes in consumption and investment decisions through adjustments to our tax system and by creating a market for carbon along with capping emissions for industry? This is the policy model recommended by mainstream economics and endorsed, to some degree or another, by governments in Europe and the U.S. It is also the basis of the policies being put forward by all of Canada’s political parties, Greens and NDP included. They differ only in the details and in the sense of urgency.
When Canada, and later on the U.S., entered World War II, both had to convert their industries to a wartime footing. Canada was required to build certain crucial industries from scratch. In this life-or-death situation, neither relied on market mechanisms to achieve such large changes so swiftly. They adopted an economic-planning model, directly reallocating capital to war industries, regulating industry, rationing resources and instituting price controls. In Canada’s case, much of essential industry was also placed under government ownership and/or control.
The evidence is overwhelming that with climate change we are facing another life-or-death situation. This time, however, victory can be ours only with a permanent change in the way we organize our economic lives. When we say these things, we are not advancing visions of austerity. Nor are we saying that there is no role for the market in bringing about the necessary changes in economic behaviour. We can have economic growth and decent living standards for all, so long as we develop the economy in harmony with the environment, with only a subordinate role for the market.
A Twelve-Step Plan…
Here are some ideas we recommend for further discussion. They are taken from a variety of sources, and are not restricted to the federal level of government:
Redesign our cities so that more people travel much less. Make it possible for people to live, work and shop in the same walkable neighbourhood. Make travel less about commuting to work and more about going places for pleasure.
Upgrade our public transit system with more affordable fares and vastly improved service, so that it can compete with automobiles on a level playing field. Finance the upgrade through green municipal investment funds, and funds shifted from road-building and road-widening programs.
Develop an individual- or family-based rationing system for selected carbon-intense activities like airline travel or even car travel. Rationing is a more democratic way of restricting consumption than taxation.
Require all new single-family and multi-family housing to meet net-zero energy standards. New houses should be better insulated and sealed with higher-quality windows and doors, high-efficiency furnaces and solar heating and power systems.
Ban the sale of all lighting, appliances and equipment that do not meet energy star standards.
Introduce mandatory energy audits of every family home and multi-family dwelling, followed by retrofits of insulation upgrades, air sealing, and the like. Oblige landlords to bring their units up to high-energy efficiency standards before they can rent them out.
Require similar audits and retrofits of all commercial and public buildings and stringent standards for newly constructed buildings.
Mandate fuel-efficient and greenhouse-gas (GHG) standards for automobiles and trucks on par with those of Europe and Japan (more stringent than California standards).
Legislate an immediate moratorium on the development of the tar sands. (The development of this will otherwise contribute half of all emissions growth over the next twenty years.) This moratorium should continue at least until the industry has developed widely proven technologies for carbon storage with permanent sequestration. A similar moratorium should be imposed on new coalmines until carbon storage and sequestration are assured.
Legislate an immediate end to the $1.4-billion-per-year subsidies to the oil-and-gas sector.
Introduce absolute caps on industrial emissions, with the caps being progressively reduced over time. Firms that exceed these emission caps will be subject to heavy fines, and shut down or taken into public ownership if their negligence persists.
Strategically upgrade Canada’s electricity grid for sustainable energy, in-creasing east-west connections and promote offshore wind and biomass fuels.
This article appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Fighting Harper).